European Court upholds patent for life forms

European Union rules allowing for the patenting of life forms with industrial applications do not violate human dignity, the European Court of Justice has ruled.

The court yesterday rejected a challenge brought by the Netherlands to a 1998 EU directive setting out which inventions involving plants, animals, or the human body may be patented.

That directive required the 15 member states of the EU to allow patenting, under certain conditions, of "biotechnological inventions" that may have industrial applications.

The Dutch government, traditionally opposed to genetic manipulation of living organisms, sought to annul the directive, arguing that granting patents for isolated parts of the human body, such as gene sequences, undermined "the fundamental right to human dignity and integrity."

The court rejected that argument, finding that the EU law was framed in "stringent enough terms to ensure that the human body remains unavailable for patenting and inalienable and human dignity is safeguarded."

It also noted that processes that offend human dignity, such as cloning humans, modifying the genetic identity of humans, or using human embryos for industrial or commercial purposes, are prohibited.

There was no immediate reaction from the Dutch government, which was supported by Italy and Norway.

Only four EU countries - Britain, Ireland, Finland, and Denmark - have fully incorporated the EU directive into their national law, more than a year after the deadline for doing so.

Critics say the delay shows dissatisfaction with the directive and have called for its renegotiation.

"Opposition against patents on life is growing," says Greenpeace campaigner Christoph Then. "We need a political solution, now more than ever."

But industry groups welcomed the court decision and called on EU governments to stop foot-dragging.

"Full implementation is now necessary to stimulate our confidence to go investing in this very promising, but highly costly and risky field of biomedicine," says Brian Ager, director general of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations.

Europe's biotech industry has lagged behind that of the US, although EU officials have cited the field as worthy of special attention for creating jobs in the 21st Century.

"It is now high time to act," says Ernesto Bertarelli, chairman of Emerging Biopharmaceutical Enterprises, representing 30 European biotech firms.

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